As told exclusively to
This year is the 60th anniversary of the First British International Drag Festival which was organised by Gerry Belton who thankfully kept all his correspondence leading up to, during and after the Drag Festivals including the first letter he wrote to Wally Parks of the NHRA telling him of the ambitious plans to hold the first big international drag event outside America in September 1964 and Wally’s enthusiastic reply as it had long been a hope of the NHRA to send a contingent of cars for such an occasion.
Gerry had a stand at the 1964 Racing Car Show in January featuring an Allard Dragon dragster which created a lot of interest and useful contacts for the Drag Festivals. The British Drag Racing Association was formed, and practise days were organised. Different venues around the country were looked at as possibilities for the Drag Festival and the RAC were contacted about exempting the American participants from some of their strict regulations.
One of the most important letters came from Odhams Press on the 12th March which eventually led to The People newspaper becoming the main sponsor to the Series...
This story was produced by John Hunt from Gerry's letters, edited by Nick Pettitt and published by Eurodragster.com editor Simon Groves. Simon Belton, son of Gerry, and Allan Allard, son of Sydney, have given their kind permission to publish letters and other paperwork.
The first visit to the UK by American dragsters in September 1963 saw Dante Duce and Dean Moon bring over the Mooneyes dragster and Mickey Thompson bring over his Harvey Aluminum Special dragster which received tremendous coverage from the British press and was a huge success.
The visit culminated in a final side by side race between Duce and Thompson at Debden which proved to be a benchmark in the history of UK Drag Racing, leaving the fans who had seen it clamouring for more and arming Sydney with the knowledge that the future of British drag racing lay in making such a spectacle available to a wider audience. He began thinking about how he could achieve the same spectacle on a much larger scale for 1964.
Simon Groves, editor of Eurodragster, had a questions and answers interview with Gerry Belton in April 2015. This was arranged with Gerry by David Riswick of John Woolfe Racing. John Hunt was fortunate to meet Simon Belton in June 2021, the son of Gerry Belton who passed away in December 2020. He asked Simon if we could use his dad's story on the BDRH Drag Racing Pioneers page published on eurodragster.com. Having explained what he wanted to do with his dad's story, Simon gave John part of his dad's collection, the other half was with David at JWR. Simon asked David for the other half back and John collected it from Simon at the 'Pathfinder' cafe at Blackbushe airport 2022, the same place where the first and last rounds of the Drag Festival took place in 1964.
Gerry Belton worked for Sydney Allard and the Allard Motor Company from 1960. The significance of Gerry's collection has become all too apparent, containing what we believe to be a comprehensive collection of the original letters covering the organising of the 1964 Drag Festival. At first Gerry worked part time on the Drag Festival while still working for Allards but was then made General Manager working full time on the Drag Festival on behalf of Sydney Allard and the newly formed British Drag Racing Association (BDRA) made up of members from the Allard Owners Club.
The first two letters are the most important, when Gerry wrote to Wally Parks and Wally’s reply. These two letters and what was to follow cemented the sport of Drag Racing in England and Europe. We've grouped together all the letters relating to the Drag Festival in date order building up to the festival taking place and post-race correspondence.
The organisation of a Festival of this size and nature was not without its problems. Gerry was on the committee of the newly formed BDRA as well as Secretary of a new business called 'Drag Festivals Ltd' set up by members of the Allard Owners Club and the BDRA to run the financial side of the Festivals.
This was a monumental task which would be undertaken by a small team of relatively inexperienced personnel, not enough for a project of this size, and this was realised once the first two meetings had taken place. We've tried to tell the story of how Gerry worked with all the personnel, organisations, clubs, media, RAC and the English competitors and at the same time coordinate all this with the much-needed support from Wally Parks of the NHRA, Dante Duce the Tour Manager and all the American teams who attended the Drag Festival.
November 19th 1963, Gerry Belton wrote to Wally Parks of the NHRA telling him of Sydney Allard’s ambitious plans to hold the first big international drag event outside America in September 1964. He included an invitation for ten top dragsters and three bikes to represent the United States and an offer of $1000.00 for each car and $750.00 for the bikes towards expenses.
November 22nd Wally wrote back to Gerry with great enthusiasm as it had long been a hope of the NHRA to send a contingent of cars for such an occasion.
November 1963 Gerry decided to have a stand at the 'The Fifth Annual Racing Car Show' at Olympia 22nd Jan-1st Feb to promote the Drag Festival and the new Allard Dragon dragsters which were being built.
Gerry sent the application for space to book a display site costing £20.00 with an accompanying letter requesting a facia board with the 'Allard Owners Club Ltd' on it which had been formed from the existing club members in order to put the September Drag Festival on a business-like footing, adding, I hope you can accommodate the long name for the facia board but it's essential the title appears in full. My stand design will follow in a day or so.
December 31st, 1am GMT, Gerry phoned Wally, can you come to the press party Tuesday January 7th? Wally replied, no, to little notice but he agreed to do a tape recording and send it to Gerry. Gerry also asked for 16mm films of Dragging, preferably sound and colour. Also pics with good action shots of two big cars doing wheelstands with plenty of smoke. And a copy of Drag Racing operations and procedures. Wally replied yes, he could send a film of the 1962 NHRA Nationals, and action pics and an old operations and procedures was available.
February 3rd... After the Fifth Annual Racing Car Show took place, some very good contacts were made including Programme Publications who printed the programmes for all events including supplementary programmes of the entrants and results were added as an additional booklet. 6th Feb, Castrol Ltd, after speaking to Gerry at the show, sent a follow up letter. Not interested in sponsorship at this time but keep us informed. Thanks for the short film of American Drag Racing please send a long version.
Also Castrol asked for a photo of Sydney's original Dragster, a sketch will be done and will appear in the annual Castrol Achievements book 1963 version. We might possibly produce a film which we do to send to car clubs. 13th Feb, Baxter Hoare & Co ltd wrote, after visiting your stand at the Show we are offering international shipping, forwarding, storage and distribution.
Feb 20th Allard Owners Club committee meeting was held at 24/28 Clapham High Street, London, headed Drag Festival. Sydney Allard gave a report of the present position indicating the enthusiastic response from the Press, Clubs and others. An appointment was made with the Daily Mirror for the 26th February.
The committee approved the report that although the Mirror were interested, it might only be possible to obtain a loan from them and they would want a portion of the gate money. The committee is sufficiently confident that the success of the Festival will be sufficient to meet all expenses. During this meeting it was agreed to form a new club, The British Drag Racing Association with members of the Allard Owners Club Committee forming the first Committee. The object would be to promote Drag Racing. The annual subscription was set at £2, 2 shillings, no entry fee.
It was agreed that the Allard owners Club would carry on with the Drag Festival for 1964. Committee members were duly elected (see minutes below). The BDRA would organise some practice days. One member elected was Group Captain Coulson who promised to help look for a new venue. He was president of the RAF Sports Association and volunteered his help.
The most notable letter was from Odhams Press 12th March from Mr Vaughan Morris, this turned out to be one of the most fruitful ones as the People Newspaper became the main sponsor to the Series. Although it was at first going to be the new publication of the Sun but was changed some weeks before the Drag Festival.
To the left is a copy of page 4 from the programme showing how different clubs ended up running each event. The next selection of letters to and from the different clubs was really quite an achievement in itself, getting together and organising them all, visiting the sites then liaising with the RAC really had its challenges.
After the first weekend, there was criticism from one club about how the first two events were poorly organised and that the club wanted to run their event as they'd run events before. This apparently worked out to be the best run event of the series.
The first event was proposed for the 13th September 1964 and was to be at Thruxton Raceway but this was changed to Blackbushe as Thruxton was unsuitable needing too much work to the surface to make it useable for the Dragsters, Racing cars and Motorcycles. Automobile Clubs in the region of the proposed events and the RAF for some of the venues were approached and asked to organise the events. This was required by the RAC due to having the right license and insurance for each event.
23rd Nov 1963 the Thames Estuary Automobile Club replied to Sydney saying the club agreed to organise the event on the 13th September as this was the original first event date and changed later to the 19th September.
11th May Lancashire Automobile Club, replied to Sydney. The committee are very pleased to cooperate with you in organising the meeting at Woodvale Aerodrome, needing the decision from the officers in Area Group Command who are considering our application. We would like to invite Len Cole to attend our sprint meeting on Whit Monday to see the course in operation. Len was unable to attend but Gerry went instead.
9th June, Group Captain Coulson, sent to Gerry a Gradient Map for Chelveston. The survey of the runway was to be done by the Ministry of Works and Public Buildings before the 17th and they would like the attendance of someone such as Len Cole.
10th June, Sydney wrote to the RAC confirming the venues, dates, clubs requiring National open permits. He mentioned two things, firstly the RAF do not want us to publicise yet the use of the Aerodromes at Church Fenton, Chelveston and Kemble. Secondly, the last event will be run by the newly formed BDRA made up of mostly Allard Owners club and the BDRA will be applying for affiliation within a few days.
Gerry wrote on 10th July to J Browning in Cheltenham and M S Wilson in Leeds and on the 13th J D Gardner in Lancashire sending them all the draft supplementary regulations wanted by the RAC and all details of the Festival. 29th July, County Borough of Southport, publicity & attractions wrote to Gerry, passed over the Hotel list and three copies of the Southport guidebook and will supply information regarding barriers, fencing, rope and stakes later.
6th August Gerry replied to Southport Borough, saying he was pleased to have met at the airfield and afterwards provisionally booked at the Royal Hotel sufficient accommodation in Southport for 50 persons. He was concerned with the cost and surprised they were unable to make any reduction for a party of this size. He asked if Southport would sponsor a trophy with a cash prize for the Woodvale meeting or the whole Festival.
6th Aug, Gerry wrote to Deputy Competitions Manager at the RAC, explaining that the rule on scatter shields is so different between here and America and that the RAC Competition Committee considered exempting the American participants in the Festival from the scatter shield regulations applying to the Dragsters, without which it is almost certain the Festival will have to be abandoned. (This was just 5 weeks before the first round of the Festival was to start.) 5th Sep, British Automobile Racing Club, Surrey Center offered £20 plus Trophy to a suitable British competitor on the 19th Sept event, possibly the fastest.
17th Sep, The Lancashire Automobile club, wrote to Gerry requesting various information for the Woodvale event and sent 60 admission tickets for Friday night 25th to the Southport Civic Reception.
23rd Sept, reply from Gerry acknowledging the previous letter and that all the Americans will be attending the Civic Reception but were not sure about the British competitors being included as several of them come from far afield. We've made many mistakes in running our first two meetings, only to be expected. I think we have ironed out the major snags for this weekend and with your collective experiences the Woodvale meeting should be one of the most successful of the series.
28th Sept, RAC wrote to Gerry confirming the RAC invitation to a cocktail party Wed 30th Sept in the large committee room of the club 5.50 to 7.30pm. The American visitors to the Drag Festival are invited and the appropriate senior British officials. 28th Sept, ACU wrote to Gerry regarding permits that do not include permission for televising any of the events, you require a separate permit. 6th Sept, RAC thanked Gerry for the VIP car passes for the last Blackbushe event last Sunday.
12th Oct, the BARC requested a report from their Yorkshire Center on the organising of the Drag Fest at Church Fenton Sunday 27th, which mentioned them first being approached by Sydney then visited by Gerry and Dante at the start of the year to provide the basic settings for the event.
The BDRA would produce the competitors, determine the running order and generally lay on the competitive side of the event. Our chief officials and marshalls would administer the event within their framework on the day. From July to date the centre received only two letters from the BDRA, the second only after threatening to wash their hands of the entire business unless more in the way of concrete organisation was forthcoming!
Immediately after the first two events of the series we were able to get to work to try and find out exactly what we were to meet in respect of our own event a week later. We took the decision; we would listen to the BDRA in general for the running of the event but we'd run the event as if it were entirely our own and interpolate Drag cars and groups of motorcycles when there's a natural gap in the programme. This proved successful if the reports in the press were to be taken at face value; the Church Fenton event was the only one of the series which was remotely organised.
23rd Oct, BARC report on 1st Blackbushe meeting, the Surrey Centre did an impressive job in extremely difficult circumstances being the first event, learnt a lot about promotion and organisation of a large-scale Motor Sport event in a few weeks. Plans for 1965 are being drawn up in light of this rather terrifying experience.
The following is the information from letters which secured a title sponsorship deal with Odhams Press Ltd. This was a huge task in itself and to then follow through and achieve what they did, by a relatively inexperienced group of enthusiasts was incredible, considering the seemingly impossible series of unmanageable events being staged, but they managed to pull it off. What's interesting is at first, it was going to be sponsored under the name of The Sun newspaper, a new publication and the Drag Festivals were to be the launching of this new newspaper.
12th March, 1st letter from Mr E Vaughan Morris, of Odhams Press, which came about from the Racing Car Show back in January, expressing their interest in the Drag Festivals. Sydney Allard proposed to have five meetings (from the seven events originally proposed) in this country during September and Chelmsford, the South Coast, North West, West Midlands and Yorkshire were mentioned in this report. If anything worthwhile becomes of this I would like the opportunity of considering the matter insofar as one of our publications is concerned. Appreciate any information you can send me.
16th March, 2nd letter, after our phone call learnt your plans are progressing regarding the forthcoming Festival. Arranged to meet up at the Connaught Rooms Wednesday 25th March at 1.00pm and talk in greater detail.
26th March, 3rd letter postponing the meeting until immediately following Easter.
3rd April, rebooked meeting at Connaught Rooms. 8th April, Gerry Belton to Vaughan Morris, So that we can progress without delay, I'm sending this quick line to confirm my call to you this evening. After long discussions we've decided the embryonic sport of Drag Racing in Britain could only benefit from being ''taken under the wing'' of such a journal as ''The Sun'' from the long term viewpoint. The Festival itself cannot, we believe, be less than successful even in its present form, However, the attention of a responsible national newspaper, especially a newcomer, would undoubtedly lessen our headaches. Subject to the many details satisfactorily agreed upon on both sides we confirm that we are most interested in the broad proposition as discussed over lunch yesterday.
7th May, Vaughan Morris wrote to Gerry. This matter seems to be marking time since our last talk. I'd appreciate hearing from you quickly if there is a basis for cooperation with us within the stipulation I passed over to you.
12th May letter confirming meeting at Connaught Rooms at 1pm tomorrow Wednesday, between Sydney, Gerry and Vaughan.
10th June, Gerry confirms another meeting at Connaught Rooms June 11th at 1pm, Gerry wants to show Vaughan the new company letterhead and can they overprint the stationary with a reference to the "SUN"
16th June, Vaughan wrote, No objection to ''Eagle'' magazine running a competition in the issue coinciding with the first of the meetings planned with prizes of free admission to the first meeting. It means only a few complimentary tickets but the publicity value will be quite substantial.
30th June, Vaughan has booked the viewing Theatre at the Royalty House, W1, Wed July 1st to watch the film of the drag meeting which Gerry will make available. I'll bring my press relations colleagues along to ask questions to get first hand details to the plans in Sept/Oct. Is the film 16mm or 32mm to advise the projectionist in advance.
2nd July, Meeting with our press officers and from this stage the series of meetings planned for Sept, Oct under the title of "The First British International Drag Festival” should include, ''sponsored by the 'Sun' '' and be carried on all printed pieces and be an essential feature of the title wherever its use. It's possible that a specially appointed Press Relations Officer will be utilised entirely for the work concerned with the Drag Festival.
On 13th July, Vaughan wrote, we need a clear-cut division of responsibilities between the BDRA and ourselves regarding the presentation of the series of meetings. We have agreed to undertake the sponsorship of the meetings from September 19th to October 4th 1964, understanding our financial liability to the BDRA does not exceed £1,500.00. This sum to be devoted towards the cost of bringing the Dragster Teams and Motor Cyclists over from the USA. We will assist in press publicity in general, in particular a comprehensive press relations service for the national, local and county press.
14th July, Confirmation of the press conference at Kensington Palace Thursday evening July 23rd. 11th Aug, next meeting Monday 17th at 9.30 am various points now require agreement between us.
20th Aug, Vaughan’s first mention of 'The People' name sponsoring the Drag Festival also needs names, address of club secretaries coordinating with us and the presentation of the six meetings. Need to send 100 car stickers, 100 D/C Posters to each club. Clearance needed on insurance. Number of seats available at all six meets at 15/- per seat, Blackbushe, 4,080, Chelveston, 2,020, Woodvale, Church Fenton and Kemble, 1,156 at each venue, pre booking arrangements and advance tickets printed and a different colour for each day.
26th Aug, BBC not to transmit on Grandstand for any of the events but will view the meetings for possible transmissions of future meetings. Have been approached by the Wheelbase programme who feature on the BBC asking for facilities for the 1st Blackbushe meeting same as provided for Pathe, Movietone, Sportsview paying no fee but Wheelbase maybe will pay £25. Need to consider the need for any facilities fee or not.
27th Aug, Cheque for £1,500 contribution towards cost of presenting the series of meetings. Understanding all costs with organising the series will be met by the BDRA. 9th Sept, Requesting car and personal passes, 20 of each for each meeting also sale of 'The People' on Sunday, the 'Sun' on Saturdays for the two Blackbushe meetings.
15th Sep, confirmation from BBC to film will do an OB at Blackbushe Sat 19th in connection with the programme 'Wheelbase' and agreed a facility fee of £150. 17th Sep, Vaughan, not happy with the premier award in the series, the Challenge Trophy presented by The People as Valvoline Oil company are offering a similar cup and £100 for the best timed performance during the series. 12th Oct, statement letter from Vaughan, amount available £6,546 3s and 6d, of this sum £6,500 has already been paid to you. You're due a balance of £46 3s 6d and arranging for this to be paid. Refunds in respect of monies received for stand seats, together with applications for tickets at too late a date to be dealt with, reached the sum of £311 12s. These refunds were inevitable in the circumstances.
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